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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Nov. 28, 2014

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In Movies & TV Reviews

Ansel Elgort and Shailene Woodley star in "The Fault in Our Stars," now playing.

"The Fault in Our Stars" mixes sincerity with sobbing


There's something a little disingenuous about many tearjerkers, the fact that many of them desperately want to peddle soft, squishy, calculated sadness in the hopes of making the audience cry – and more importantly, making money. In fact, that was my biggest fear going into "The Fault In Our Stars," the new teen romantic drama which I'm still not convinced isn't just a scheme by Kleenex to boost sales and stock prices.

I was concerned about the movie simply being comprised solely of carefully manufactured human emotions instead of real, genuine emotions about cancer getting the Nicholas Sparks treatment where serious ailments are simply used as a lazy sadness generators or narrative push.

I was concerned about the script being filled with eye-rolling attempts to be profound despite looking through a heavily romanticized, naively love-focused, teenaged lens of the world.

I was concerned about "The Fault In Our Stars" trying too hard, prying and goading me into tears like a gentler version of Scut Farkus from "A Christmas Story," yelling "Come on, cry! Cry, baby, cry!"

And, of course, I was concerned it would all work, that I would emerge from the theater a blubbering, watery eyed mess whose notes were unintelligible damp wads and whose dignity was long gone.

Luckily, none of these things particularly happened. I only welled up once (or twice … or maybe three times). But better yet, those moments – and "The Fault In Our Stars" in general – felt earned and sincere, not the result of emotional rigging. It's a movie that mixes hurt, humanity and humor with surprisingly rewarding results.

Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley of "Divergent") is a young teenager whose life with cancer has turned her into a realist with an acerbic snap and oxygen tank in tow. She has no interest in going to the local support group – led by comedian Mike Birbiglia, strumming hokey feel good songs on a guitar and desperately attempting to lead discussion and be hip – but for the sake of her doting mother (Laura Dern), she puts on a good face.

At one meeting, however, she catches the eye of Augustus (Ansel Elgort, who also played Woodley's brother in "Divergent"), a considerate, occasionally impulsive fellow patient who lost his leg to cancer, but won the fight for the time being. Now, he insists on living a grand life, one that will be remembered by all. The two meet and slowly bond, sharing a loathing for their group sessions and a love of literature – namely "An Imperial Affliction," a book about cancer that frustratingly, but perfectly, ends mid-sentence – and sweetly witty banter.

Despite Hazel's early warnings to Augustus and hesitance about getting attached to someone with her unstable, uncertain condition, the two fall in love, sharing in a grand romance and even heading to Amsterdam to see if they can get a moment with the reclusive author (Willem Dafoe) of their favorite novel. Unfortunately, as time goes on, the ailments that brought them together by chance eventually do what Hazel feared, and start threatening to tear them apart from everyone they love, including each other.

The film struggles a bit to get to its feet in the opening moments, relying on the dreaded voiceover and a lot of self-referential quips and commentary about how it's not like other stories and how it's more real – the cinematic equivalent to a high school public speaker turning his chair around to sit in it and saying "Can I get real with you guys for a sec?"

As soon as the stars of "The Fault in Our Stars" come together, however, the film and director Josh Boone (potentially up for directing another adaptation: Stephen King's "The Stand") quickly find their groove.

Unlike "Divergent," which found Woodley struggling to play a generic Katniss stand-in, "The Fault in Our Stars" is exactly the star vehicle the talented young actress deserves. Maybe it's the constant working with familiar actors (Elgort here, Miles Teller previously), but her delivery and interactions with others feel so effortlessly easy and natural. When Augustus first starts flirting with her at the first group meeting, her flittering emotions – running from confusion to charmed to conflicted – are sweetly genuine, brightening up the scene.

Even later on, as the emotional stakes and resulting outbursts get bigger, she stays grounded and away from theatrics. It's a smart performance like hers that helps the potentially exploitative material feel real rather than milked for cheap tears.

Elgort is an enjoyably effective dueling partner for Woodley as well, having sweet fun with his character's early on casual nonchalance – making his late deterioration and suffering (once again, played at just the right level) all the more painful and tragic. And while he and Woodley are the big stars, Dern is also terrific as Hazel's heartbroken mom, trying to do right for her dying daughter, even when she doesn't want it.

The secret weapons for "The Fault in Our Stars," however, are screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. With this, last year's "The Spectacular Now" and their debut "(500) Days of Summer," the duo seems to have found a specialty for earnest modern romances. They have a keen, delicate touch for blending sharp dialogue and humor, intimate love stories and honest emotional dramas. They give the movie a nicely relaxed, unhurried pace as well, even taking some time to chat about a retro Rik Smits Indiana Pacers jersey.

Of course, they make a few missteps. The much-talked about visit to The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam – a scene topped off with an kiss in Anne Frank's attic, meriting applause from bystanders – is well-intentioned. Anne Frank is a tragic but beautiful symbol of keeping one's youthful innocence, ambitions and joys even in the face of death, apt for our lead characters.

The juxtaposition, however, is clumsy (comparing cancer to the Holocaust is touchy) and awkwardly executed, with the scene feeling out of nowhere and quotes amateurishly echoing in the background to cement the point. Plus, the applause capper to their kiss while in the attic itself is one of the few moments where the movie pushes an emotion too hard, to the point of hokum.

The character of Isaac (Nat Wolff), Augustus's best friend who loses his eyes over the course of the film, also feels like much of his role was cut down from the source material. He's mostly just irreverent side character comedic relief, smashing trophies in anger and blindly throwing eggs at an ex who quit on him and his troubles.

Still, "The Fault in Our Stars" is no Nicholas Sparks easy weepy or dopey, naively overblown YA drama. I cried (briefly, and that's the story I'm sticking with), and thanks to the talent on screen and at the screenwriter's desk, its sincerity means I don't have to apologize for it.

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